Sunderland lost 2-1 to Fleetwood yesterday in their final match of the EFL Trophy group stage, meaning Phil Parkinson’s men finished second with six points, ahead of Carlisle and Aston Villa under-21s.
The Black Cats took the lead early on when Callum McFadzean’s deflected shot beat Alex Cairns, before Elliot Embleton was denied by the post.
Following three left-sided defensive injuries which forced Sunderland into a defensive reshuffle, Fleetwood took control of the match and scored twice through Barrie McKay and Mark Duffy.
The win meant Joey Barton’s side topped the group with maximum points and Sunderland are still yet to beat Fleetwood in a competitive fixture.
Elliot Embleton - the creative spark Sunderland are missing?
Yesterday’s match was a brilliant occasion for Sunderland academy graduate Elliot Embleton, who completed his first 90 minutes since 28th August 2019 in a 3-1 Carabeo Cup victory against Burnley.
The ex-England under-20 international was the stand out player in the first half, every time he gets the ball he looks to move the team forward and create chances, something which Sunderland lack in midfield.
His set piece deliveries were marvellous, particularly through the fact he swaps feet to take corners, a deep free kick which found Ollie Younger was only denied by the crossbar.
Embleton showed his technical ability when he dropped a shoulder to ease past Fleetwood defender Hill, with the resulting shot unluckily finding the post.
Currently Phil Parkinson’s selection of midfielders are very similar, Grant Leadbitter, Max Power, George Dobson and Josh Scowen are all defensive midfielders who do not contribute a high amount of goals or assists.
I questioned earlier this week why, when we already play three centre backs, do Sunderland need such limited defensive minded midfielders?
Recently Lynden Gooch has been played in midfield three, but he is someone who thrives in wide areas where he can dribble and cross - he is not a creative central midfielder.
Embleton can offer Sunderland a different option as a creative midfielder who can unlock a defence and be more positive on the ball.
If he stays fit, Embleton could become an important option moving forward for Parkinson.
Ollie Younger - a credible cover option?
Another young player who impressed and was a strong contender for man of the match was central defender Ollie Younger.
Signed from Burnley in the summer, the 20-year-old was dominant aerially and looked very composed on the ball despite playing on the left side as a right footer.
He was very unlucky to not score from an excellent diving header, before being withdrawn through a hamstring injury.
It was evident from his display as to why Parkinson has preferred him to Brandon Taylor as cover on the bench in League One fixtures.
With the long-term injuries suffered by Morgan Feeney and Arbenit Zhemajli, Younger appears to the prime candidate should any of our under-23 defenders need to step up into the first team setup.
Instead of shoehorning the likes of Luke O’Nien into central defence, would it not be better in future to provide opportunity to an on-form young player who is comfortable in that position?
It is a shame Younger looks set for a spell on the side-lines, as with Tom Flanagan and Conor McLaughlin away with Northern Ireland, he probably would have made the bench on Saturday.
Do the likes of Neil, Taylor & Patterson need a loan?
Whilst watching yesterday’s match, one important factor I noticed was that the standout Sunderland academy players had all played senior football.
The likes of Embleton (Grimsby), Jack Diamond (Harrogate), Younger (St Patrick’s) and Josh Hawkes (Hartlepool) have all played senior league football and experienced playing against professionals who are not their own age.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether players are better playing youth football or going out on loan further down the football pyramid, but you only have to look recently to a player like Ethan Robson to see the damage that restricting players from senior exposure can do.
Despite showing clear potential, Robson was not loaned out until the age of 22 which many believed was simply too late.
Compare that to Jordan Pickford, the England number one was loaned out to six different clubs before he made a single first-team appearance at Sunderland.
If Parkinson does not wish to select them, the likes of Dan Niel, Brandon Taylor and Anthony Patterson need to go out on loan to experience senior football and get regular ninety minutes.
Neil for example has struggled to complete ninety minutes and Taylor has been largely error prone throughout the group stage fixtures.
The purpose of an academy is to produce players for the first-team, the best way to do that is to provide young players with regular first-team exposure either at Sunderland or on loan.
Is Parkinson willing to give young players a chance in League One matches?
As for the youth players banging on the first-team door, specifically Elliot Embleton, Jack Diamond and Benji Kimpioka (before his injury), is Parkinson willing to use young players in League One matches?
So far this season Parkinson has preferred to stick with experienced players, even if that means shoehorning them into positions they do not play.
In his defence, he will argue we have only lost one league match and that his decision not to provide more opportunities is justified.
His track record of previous promotions sides, most notably Bolton, shows that Parkinson prefers a squad of older players accomplished at that level.
However, when the same individual players are struggling for form and not performing consistently, should they remain the first-team purely because they’re experienced?
Also, as manager of a club who possess a category one grade academy, is it not Parkinson’s duty to bring through young players into the first-team setup?
Bali Mumba’s impressive emergence in Norwich’s first-team this season makes you question how Parkinson deemed him not good enough to make a single appearance under his tenure.
If the likes of Embleton and Diamond are continuously shunned, what impression does that give to young upcoming Sunderland academy players who are thinking about whether to sign a new contract?
Overall, yesterday provided a great opportunity and reward to Sunderland’s on form under-23 players following their great league form, but how long can Parkinson ignore them from the first-team setup?